My son, nine years old and in third grade, asked me why George Floyd was killed and why so many people were protesting. I asked him what he knew about racism and his answer was, “Well, it happened a long time ago, during slavery and also when black and white people were treated differently. But now we are all the same, so I don’t know.”
I was flummoxed. I had assumed that my white son understood the things that black children his age know. I hadn’t realized that my son has no idea what black parents talk to their children about, about how young black men, and women, are killed by the police at an alarming rate in the United States.
I’ve never spoken to either of my children about what to do, and what not to do, if they see a police officer. I am ashamed of the omissions my privilege has allowed me to make, and I share it here because I’m sure I am not alone.
What, then, should be happening in schools around the country? How can teachers help families with these difficult conversations? It is safe to say that America is at a boiling point, and equally safe to say that we have been here before. To create lasting change, we must sustain this anti-racist work beyond the heat of the moment. Teachers, schools and school systems are critical parts of this change.
In my work as a parent, teacher, teacher-educator and equity consultant, I have grappled with how to live and work in a deliberately anti-racist way. To do this work effectively, I have found six things that guide my approach.
- Understand what white privilege and white supremacy mean. I am starting to understand, though it is a constant challenge, that I benefit from white supremacy, because that’s what systemic racism means. Life is easier for me because I am white. I never think about the color of my skin, the ways in which I will be perceived or whether I am “representing my race well.” I never worry that I will not get a job because of the color of my skin, or that I will be harmed because of it. Four hundred years of the supremacy of white people in America has made these statements true. And it is my job, as an anti-racist educator, to work to dismantle this system.
- Be curious, and ask good questions. It’s OK not to know enough about the black experience in America, as long as you are willing to learn more. From slavery to Jim Crow to Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter, there is much to learn, and much wrongdoing on the part of America to acknowledge. Read, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, watch television shows like Black-ish. Learn about the rich and varied experiences of black people by listening to black voices.
- Teach about black lives beyond Black History Month. Black History Month is a start, certainly, but black individuals have shaped America over the past four centuries. Black stories don’t belong only during the shortest month of the year, to be omitted from the narrative the rest of the time.
- Teach that change starts locally. Recently, there’s been an enormous amount of conversation about the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Most change, though, happens at the local level. Kids can begin to make change in their classrooms and schools. They can learn about local government and the roles it plays. They can talk with elected officials in their communities and advocate for the changes they wish to see in the world.
- Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Talking about race is enormously challenging. As a white woman, I worry about offending my black students, colleagues and friends. I see my white students struggle to share their ideas because they are worried about offending others, and my black students reluctant to share their experiences and perceptions because they are often in the minority — or because they find, rightly, that educating their ignorant (usually white) peers is exhausting and not something they should always have to do. Discomfort is OK. We can get comfortable talking about race only if we actually talk about race.
- Admit mistakes. We will all make mistakes when we talk about race. Schools need to be safe spaces so we can assume that students are coming from a good place and not intending to cause harm. If harm is caused unintentionally, students need to discuss what went wrong, learn from one another, apologize honestly and move forward constructively.
There’s no magic wand we can wave to create greater understanding about race in America, in order to dismantle racist systems and build new ones.
Doing this will take sustained, focused, hard work. After centuries of racism and racial violence in America, it’s long overdue.
This story on teaching about race and anti-racist work was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways.